by Ľubomíra Tomášová
At the dawn of the 19th century, a new literary movement called transcendentalism emerged in America. It was inspired by nature and romanticism and its goal was to live in harmony with the laws of nature and feel a sense of unity with all living creatures. Ralph Waldo Emerson, at first an avid supporter of Puritanism, later a founder of transcendentalism wrote an important piece of writing called Nature where he formulates some of the most fundamental notions of this movement. Yet, 200 years later, today’s postmodern society is trapped in sieges of consumerism and is consequently facing countless issues on a global scale. Emerson’s thoughts might seem outdated and otherworldly at times, however, they also encompass some important perspectives on nature, humanity and the very essence of life. The question is whether these ideas are still relevant to a 21st-century person and capable of changing the way one thinks in a society which is constantly oversaturated with constant progress and new information.
In his essay Nature, Emerson gives an emphasis on endless cycles of change on this planet. “Each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again” (Nature 23). This idea could be traced back to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who first introduced the concept of panta rhei (Kahn, 182), i.e. everything flows, and has also been dealt with in the philosophy of Buddhism or Hinduism. It is very likely that transcendentalists were inspired by these schools of thought. Nevertheless, this change implies that there is a danger in getting too attached to specific things in life expecting that they always stay the same because this world is constantly evolving. The lesson one can draw from Emerson’s thought is that the freedom can only be found in accepting that everything changes, comes and goes, and it is all happening according to the laws of nature. Truly understanding that change is inseparable from life can take away a lot of pressure and disappointment from the life of a human being. This constant evolution of things is a sign that even the toughest moments are eventually going to pass.
Emerson believes that “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (Nature 41). In other words, human behaviors mirror natural laws and therefore, it is possible for people to learn from the nature. Human relations and interactions are similar to those which can be seen in the natural world when it comes to building communities and helping each other. Furthermore, similarly to the natural laws, people need laws, rules and boundaries for themselves, otherwise they would be living in chaos. They adjust their behavior and make compromises in order to have better chances at survival and higher quality of life. Just as creatures living freely in nature, they are trying to survive. Therefore, it could be said that humans are like a microcosm in comparison to the universe and nature as whole.
In a passage which deals with affinities in the universe, Emerson suggests that “every universal truth which we express in words, implies or supposes every other truth” (Nature 56). This means that everything existing and true can only refer to other things which are existing and true. It might seem a little bit far-fetched. Clearly, not all ideas which have ever appeared in human mind over centuries are correct or possible in real life, but in a more abstract sense, for Emerson all things are connected, equal and significant. Even we, as human beings, are spiritually connected to a piece of stone or vegetable. In transcendentalism, everything that exists is in union and is a part of nature. Just as it is wrong to behave negatively, unjustly or viciously to towards oneself or other people, it is also wrong to demolish nature and its sources either directly or take actions which may have destructive effects in the long run. If there is a one seemingly insignificant part of the world treated badly, the rest of it will suffer as well. If this attitude were to be put into practice in today’s world, people would care about their environment in the same way they care about themselves because each person is a part of the nature that is being destroyed. In other words, Emerson’s golden rule would be: what people sow is what they will eventually reap.
Emerson’s ideas, as well as other works which originated during the transcendentalist movement in general, were not written exclusively for people in that period. Obviously, ever since they were written the world has changed drastically, but the message behind these works is to reveal the timeless world and phenomena which are constantly reoccurring. Emerson attempts to bring truth to his readers, not an absolute or definite truth, but rather one that cannot be grasped, abused or manipulated because it surpasses all the definitions or mechanisms of the universe. George Santayana, Spanish-American philosopher and writer, claims that Emerson “belonged very little to the past, very little to the present, and almost wholly to that abstract sphere into which mystical or philosophic aspiration has carried a few men in all ages” (Santayana 231). In this way transcendentalism resembles religion in a sense of almost sacral dedication to some ideas or beliefs. Emerson left his Puritan beliefs and began to despise the dogmatic side of religion, but with transcendentalism he managed to create a different sort of “religion” based on spirituality, freedom and individual expression.
Emerson highlights the importance of an individual and self-reliance . Every person should search for the truth and be the judge of what is right for themselves. The main mission of every human being is to understand how everything is interconnected and to find their own personal way of contributing to the world they are a part of. That is the reason why non-conformity, intuition and introspection are needed in order to accomplish this goal. Once an individual is aware of the unity of everything, they will be transformed into a more spiritual, mindful and authentic being. In the context of today, living in the present moment and practicing mindfulness can be equivalent to what Emerson was trying to convey to his readers. In the whirlwind of technologies, social media and constant fighting against time, it is important to find time for some self-discovery, reflection, or even meditation.
During his time, Emerson’s thoughts were considered by many people as too radical. Perhaps if these ideas were more popular, people now would be adopting more natural ways of living and society would not be facing so many global issues. Emerson’s oftentimes mystical thoughts may not offer any practical advice on how to save the planet or improve our society in this highly advanced era, however, his radically non-conforming and highly introspective approach, when adopted, can transform the way one thinks and eventually takes action. If transcendentalism was in fashion right now, it would most likely put an emphasis on the individual expression, self-awareness and creativity. It would inspire people to dive deeper within themselves, find their unique pathway and live a authentic life.
Ľubomíra is studying for a Bachelor ‘s degree in English Language and Literature, and earned a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy last year. She loves traveling around Europe, watching films and reading non-fiction books about inspirational people, self-development and society. She is currently learning French and hopes to be fluent one day. She enjoys spending evenings social dancing or having conversations with her friends. One day she really wants to find her dream job which would involve sharing her thoughts, writing and communicating with people.
1 Self-reliance is a term that Emerson used frequently and he even wrote another essay with the same title. In the essay he explains that self-reliance is the opposite of conformity. In the very last paragraph Emerson states that “nothing can bring you peace but yourself” (The Essay on Self-Reliance 59).
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. James Monroe & Co, 1836.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Essay on Self-Reliance. The Roycrofters , 1908.
Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Morris, Brian. Religion and Anthropology: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge University Press. 2006.
Santayana, George. Interpretations Of Poetry And Religion. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900.
The Bhagavad Gita. Translated by Gavin Flood and Charles Martin, W. W. Norton & Company. 2012.